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Ahmed Chalabi and Me

December 20, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments
Ahmed Chalabi

Ahmed Chalabi

No, I don’t actually know Ahmed Chalabi. But we do have a professional connection, as I discovered only yesterday. (Oh, should I remind you of who Chalabi is? He became prominent in US news coverage of Iraq in the run-up to the US invasion, as an Iraqi in exile in London who was friends with many neocons in the government and was a leading source of (false) information on the existence of WMDs in Iraq. He was also imagined as a possible leader of the Iraqi government once Saddam Hussein was deposed. And indeed he was on the Iraqi governing council after the invasion, later serving as deputy prime minister. You can read more here.)

I wrote last week that I was reading Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War. I finished it last night, and let me say once again that it is a painful but essential book to read regarding the US war effort in Iraq and how the US was perceived (2003-2006) by Iraqis of various sorts. Just before dinner, I read a portion of the book in which Filkins meets with Chalabi, a fascinating passage, and at its start Filkins notes that Chalabi is an MIT- and Chicago-trained mathematician. I must have seen this fact many times before, but never focused on it. The problem is, I’ve often read about one person or another being a mathematician of some sort, and usually the person turns out to do something else, like physics or finance. So if I read before that Chalabi is a mathematician, I probably ignored it. But this time, with the mention of MIT and Chicago, I got curious and decided to look Chalabi up to see what he really did.

Well, what do you know? He’s a mathematician! An algebraist, just like me!

I went to the Mathematics Genealogy Project, an invaluable resource in which one can look up mathematicians, see when they got their PhD, who their advisor was, and what their thesis title was. The beauty of this is that one can then click backwards in time to find the advisor’s advisor, the advisor’s advisor’s advisor, and so on, then go forward and see the students and students of students and students of students of students an advisor has had. The whole historic family of mathematicians is revealed. When I found Chalabi’s entry in the genealogy, I was stunned to learn that he was a student of George Glauberman at the University of Chicago, and his thesis title was On the Jacobson Radical of a Group Algebra.

Here’s the thing. I was at Chicago. I know George Glauberman (though it’s been a few years). I did work related to Jacobson radicals of group algebras.

Chalabi completed his degree in 1969. I spent the 1980-1981 academic year in the Chicago Math department. So we didn’t even come close to overlapping. But I got to know George a little that year. I was one of a group of people he invited to his Hyde Park home one Sunday afternoon to meet with a visitor. (I forget the details. He was a Soviet Jewish emigre of some importance. And yes, I lived in Hyde Park, that hotbed of radicalism where Obama would later pal around with William Ayers. How absurd. Heck, I spent the year palling around with Roger Schafly, a mathematical colleague whose mother Phyllis is Ms Mrs. Conservative. We lived in the same mouse- and roach-infested building, owned by the university but not torn down because the Math department found it a useful place to put their short-term faculty and visitors.) Chalabi’s work is in the general area as some of my own: the overlap between group theory and ring theory in which one studies rings — group algebras — formed from and coding the information of groups.

I next looked up Chalabi on MathSciNet, a site run by the American Mathematical Society where one can read short reviews of mathematical journal articles that appeared in a publication called Mathematical Reviews. (I would link to it, but you can’t get in without an account or without going through a university library that subscribes.) Three papers are listed. This doesn’t mean he wrote just three. It just means these are the three that are reviewed. They all look respectable. I was able to obtain the earliest of the three articles electronically through my library. (Again, it’s not publicly available.) It appeared in 1973 in Mathematische Annalen, a first-rate German mathematics journal. Its title is Modules over group algebras and their application in the study of semi-simplicity and it has some good results. Chalabi was in the Math department of the American University of Beirut at the time.

I don’t know when Chalabi stopped doing mathematical research, but had he continued in this vein, it would have been plausible that we would find ourselves at conferences together. Indeed, the third article of Chalabi’s reviewed by Math Reviews appeared in 1980 and was on a topic in the general theory of modules over rings, not modules over group algebras. This suggests that in the late 1970s he might have gone to conferences in ring theory, as I did. So who knows? Maybe we met. Too bad I didn’t ask him about Iraqi politics.

Categories: Math, Politics
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